He is in his 70s and first became known for his theory of transformational grammar – and now he is top of the thinkers’ hit parade. Noam Chomsky, the linguistics professor who has become one of the most outspoken critics of US foreign policy, has won a poll that names him as the world’s top public intellectual.
Chomsky, who was underwhelmed by the honour, beat off challenges from Umberto Eco, Richard Dawkins, Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens to win the Prospect/Foreign Policy poll.
More than 20,000 voters from around the world took part in selecting the winners from a list of 100. The most striking aspect of the list is the shortage of the young, the female and the French. Only two of the top 10, Hitchens and Salman Rushdie, were born after the war, and Naomi Klein is the highest placed woman, at 11. France provides one name in the top 40, fewer than Peru and Iran.
Since the poll was for the world’s leading intellectuals, it should come as no surprise that websites manned by supporters of Chomsky, Hitchens and Abdolkarim Soroush were used to draw attention to the poll. Chomsky’s supporters are clearly the most energetic: he took 4,800 votes to Eco’s 2,500. Voters came mainly from Britain and the US. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to them,” said Chomsky of the poll last night. “It was probably padded by some friends of mine.”
Pondering the absence of younger intellectuals from the list, David Herman asks in the new issue of Prospect: “Who are the younger equivalents to [Jürgen] Habermas, Chomsky and Havel? Great names are formed by great events. But there has been no shortage of terrible events in the last 10 years.” Only two of the top 20 have yet to reach the age of 50.
The choice of Chomsky will be welcomed and contested by many of the same names who responded delightedly or furiously to the award of the Nobel prize for literature to Harold Pinter last week.
In recognition of this, Prospect offers alternative perspectives, with Robin Blackburn arguing for Chomsky’s right to head the list as both a brilliant expositor of linguistics and a vital critic of the US abroad, while Oliver Kamm dismisses him as a kneejerk anti-American who is cavalier about his sources.
1 Noam Chomsky linguistics expert and critic of US foreign policy
2 Umberto Eco writer and academic
3 Richard Dawkins Oxford professor of public understanding of science
4 Vaclav Havel playwright and leader of Czech velvet revolution
5 Christopher Hitchens journalist, author, pro-Iraq war polemicist